Libya — Imminent fall of Qaddafi poses policy challenge for China and Russia

Sig­nif­i­cant advances by NATO-backed Libyan rebels seek­ing to oust Colonel Moam­mar Qaddafi pose a sig­nif­i­cant pol­i­cy chal­lenge for Chi­na and Rus­sia that could prompt a rethink­ing of their sup­port for auto­crat­ic lead­ers in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

As Rus­sia and Chi­na scram­ble to improve strained rela­tions with the rebels and sal­vage future com­mer­cial ties in the wake of the fall of Mr. Qaddafi’s com­pound in Tripoli, pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Bei­jing and Moscow are like­ly to want to ensure that they do not end up on the wrong side of his­to­ry else­where in the region, and most imme­di­ate­ly in Syria. 

Alarm bells went off on Tues­day in the Chi­nese and Russ­ian cap­i­tals after Abdel­jalil May­ouf, a man­ag­er of the rebel-con­trolled Ara­bi­an Gulf Oil Com­pa­ny (AGOCO) warned that Chi­na, Rus­sia and Brazil in con­trast to West­ern nations could face polit­i­cal obsta­cles in revert­ing back to busi­ness as usu­al once Mr. Qaddafi has been removed from power. 

Libya’s rebel Tran­si­tion Nation­al Coun­cil (TNC) has said that it would hon­or all exist­ing con­tracts, but only after inves­ti­gat­ing whether cor­rup­tion was involved in those deals. That gives the coun­cil con­sid­er­able lee­way giv­en that mem­bers of Mr. Qaddafi’s fam­i­ly or close asso­ciates of the Libyan leader were part of vir­tu­al­ly every deal con­clud­ed dur­ing his rule. 

Chi­na, Rus­sia and Brazil as well as India and South Africa have been crit­i­cal of NATO airstrikes aimed at weak­en­ing Mr. Qaddafi’s grip on pow­er and mil­i­tary aid to the rebels and have refrained from call­ing for the res­ig­na­tion of the Libyan leader. The five Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers were this week quick to note that they did not block the council’s endorse­ment in March of a no- fly zone in Libya enforced by NATO. Chi­na and Rus­sia, in a bid to counter per­cep­tions that they had failed to whole­heart­ed­ly sup­port the rebels, point out that they have main­tained con­tact with the rebels through­out the sev­en-month cri­sis and have held talks with the rebel lead­er­ship in Beng­hazi as well as in Bei­jing and Moscow. 

Clear­ly con­cerned, Chi­nese offi­cials Tues­day called on the rebel lead­er­ship to pro­tect the country’s invest­ments in Libya. Russ­ian for­eign min­is­ter Seirgey Lavrov sought to put a good face on his country’s posi­tion by insist­ing that Rus­sia was ready to medi­ate even at this late hour a polit­i­cal solu­tion to the cri­sis. Mr. Lavrov’s state­ment came as the Russ­ian-Libyan Busi­ness Coun­cil said Russ­ian ener­gy firms are like­ly to be barred from resum­ing work in Libya. 

The council’s state­ment was echoed by the chair­man of the Russ­ian parliament’s inter­na­tion­al affairs com­mit­tee, Kon­stan­tin Kosachev. Mr. Kosachev cau­tioned that Rus­sia would not be able to com­pete with com­pa­nies from NATO mem­ber coun­tries for Libyan oil projects because a rebel- con­trolled gov­ern­ment “in dis­trib­ut­ing con­tracts to rebuild the Libyan econ­o­my will give pri­or­i­ty to the NATO coun­tries. Nei­ther Chi­na, nor Rus­sia nor South Africa or any oth­er coun­try, which did not par­tic­i­pate in this ‘human­i­tar­i­an oper­a­tion,’ will be able to com­pete with the NATO coun­tries on equal terms,” Mr. Kosachev told Russia’s

Embat­tled Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad is like­ly to hold on to pow­er longer than Mr. Qaddafi but Chi­na, Rus­sia, India, Brazil and South Africa know that they will face a sim­i­lar dilem­ma once he too falls and are like­ly to want to ensure that they are bet­ter posi­tioned than they are in Libya. 

The five pow­ers may how­ev­er find it more dif­fi­cult to recov­er ground in Syr­ia if they fail to start prepar­ing now for a change of regime. Unlike in the case of Libya, they can­not point to hav­ing done any­thing to stop the bru­tal Syr­i­an crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers nor can they point to any pub­lic con­tact with Mr. Assad’s opponents. 

It took five months of blood­shed for them to endorse a Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil con­dem­na­tion of Mr. Assad’s crack­down and then only in the weak­est pos­si­ble form. Rus­sia ear­li­er this month crit­i­cized the crack­down for the first time while Chi­na has yet to com­ment. All five coun­tries were quick to reject last week’s call on Mr Assad to step down by the Unit­ed States and Europe. 

Com­men­ta­tors have been quick to note that Asia and par­tic­u­lar­ly China’s com­mer­cial inter­ests in Libya are lim­it­ed and are like­ly to in good time assert the same with regard to Syr­ia. Chi­na relied last year on Libya for only three per­cent of its crude imports but had to evac­u­ate from Libya 36,000 work­ers employed by 75 pri­mar­i­ly state-owned Chi­nese com­pa­nies ear­li­er this year. 

Yet, even if com­mer­cial ties with Libya and Syr­ia are rel­a­tive­ly minis­cule, there is a lot more at stake for Chi­na, Rus­sia, India, Brazil and South Africa not only in those two coun­tries but across the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Beyond chanc­ing that their com­pa­nies will be at a dis­ad­van­tage in com­pet­ing for lucra­tive post-rev­o­lu­tion con­tracts, the five coun­tries risk neg­a­tive per­cep­tions in a region in which mil­lions are close­ly mon­i­tor­ing events in Libya and Syr­ia and are like­ly to be inspired by the demise of Mr. Qaddafi, the third Arab leader to be top­pled this year. 

Mr. Qaddafi’s immi­nent fall was pre­ced­ed by mass protests that forced the pres­i­dents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign ear­li­er this year. The griev­ances that have pro­pelled the rebel­lion in Libya and the protests in Syr­ia, Tunisia and Egypt are shared with the pop­u­la­tion of a swath of land that stretch­es from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf. Change by hook or by crook is like­ly to be the name of the game for the next decade in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

All of this does not mean that Chi­na and Rus­sia are not about to make a U‑turn and from now on open­ly and whole­heart­ed­ly sup­port revolts and the quest in the region for greater polit­i­cal free­dom and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty. But they are less like­ly to effec­tive­ly give Arab auto­crat­ic lead­ers license to bru­tal­ly crack down on pro­test­ers like they did in the case of Syr­ia by effec­tive­ly block­ing inter­na­tion­al consensus. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal University’s S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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